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Soon all new cars could come with breathalyzers

If you're convicted of driving drunk in Tennessee, the court is likely to order you to install an ignition interlock device (IID) on your car. Much like a roadside breathalyzer test, an IID requires you to breathe into the device to get a reading on how much alcohol is in your breath. This is then translated to a blood-alcohol level.

If you have a mandatory IID on your vehicle, it won't start unless you provide a sample below a certain threshold, typically 2% blood-alcohol. The device is intended to prevent people who have been convicted of drunk driving from committing another offense.

But what if all cars came with IIDs? The technology is getting closer to the point where you wouldn't need to blow into a machine for the vehicle to determine you are too drunk to drive.

Some high-end cars already have cameras that warn drivers -- or even pull over - if they seem intoxicated or take their eyes off the road. In the future, it seems likely that cars could test the air in the vehicle and extrapolate the blood-alcohol level of the driver.

Indeed, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been working with an automaker group since 2008 on an effort to develop a way for cars to detect alcohol intoxication without requiring the driver to do anything.

So far, the federal government has spent $50 million on the project. The effort has apparently produced a streamlined version of an IID. However, it isn't able to determine the driver's blood-alcohol content but can only detect the presence of alcohol in the air. In other words, it can't tell the difference between someone who has had one glass of wine and someone who has had six.

More funding for the project may be on its way

Recently, a bipartisan pair of senators introduced the Reduce Impaired Driving for Everyone Act of 2019, which would allocate an additional $10 million to the research and development of a real-time, breath- or touch-based sensor for alcohol. Another $25 million is set aside to install and test the resulting technology in government-owned vehicles.

The ultimate goal is to have the technology become standard in all new vehicles by 2024.

The technology may be on its way, but it's not here yet. Since the current, streamlined sensor can't differentiate between someone who has merely been drinking and someone who is drunk, using it would mean many ordinary drinkers wouldn't be able to start their cars.

Everyone understands that drunk driving can have serious, even tragic consequences. But are we ready for a world where your car won't start if you've had even one drink?

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